Having focussed for 40 years on my father’s premature death from a stroke and dietary patterns to prevent heart disease, it struck me I should begin to pay attention to being my mother’s daughter and my risk for developing Type 2 diabetes (T2D). My mother was a third generation Type 2 diabetic, following on after my grand-mother and great-grandmother. She was diagnosed in her early 60s, although may have been an un-diagnosed diabetic years before that.
Scattered throughout the food and diet literature is the suggestion that to ensure optimal health we should return to the eating patterns before the 1960s. This concept was popularised by Michael Pollan. In his book In Defence of Food2 one of his ‘rules of thumb’ is ‘don’t eat anything your great-grandmother would not recognise as food‘. His implied take-away message is we should ‘eat real, proper, simple food’ – not the kind from a packet. When a recent article3 suggested going back two generations further ‘eat the way your great-great-great-grandparents ate, and you’ll live a long life’, it got me wondering.
To begin with, my great-great-great-grandparents number 32. To find out if that quoted statement is true, I would have to trace my family history back to those 32 ancestors, understand their backgrounds, work out what they probably ate, then contemplate whether foods they were eating in the manner they were eating them could improve my own longevity.
This was an intriguing concept and I decided to investigate.
Luckily for me, I come from a line of family-history lovers. My sister, mother and other relatives traced my family tree to before the 18th century and have written books on it4,5,6, so understanding where I came from wasn’t difficult. My fifth generation ancestors from 200 to 250 years ago originated mainly from Britain but from diverse backgrounds of convicts, working class, tenant-farmers, middle class merchants, professionals, and one line possibly from landed gentry. With that variance, pin-pointing any single traditional food pattern would be challenging.
Gastronomic, other historians, and nutritionists have researched food history in Australia and that of Britain7,8,9,10,11,12,13. As I explored this literature genre – from a time that was supposedly before processed and definitely before fast food – I was to discover that this was not the case. Two hundred or more years ago people were not always eating “real” food. In fact in the days before refrigeration, the probable dietary patterns of my own ancestors would have included substantial quantities of preserved (salted, smoked, dried, pickled, candied) foods; biscuits, bread, cheese, tea, sugar, spices, flour; and later canned foods – all of which are processed foods and arguably many could also be deemed ‘fast-food’.
Depending on which ancestor and time period I looked back on, there were periods within my family’s history where they would have experienced borderline or even critical undernourishment. For other ancestors, who were or became financially secure, patterns of plentiful food and perhaps even eating to excess were apparent. Regardless of the background, however, there did appear to be a greater focus on either obtaining or producing food; and a much deeper connection with food and where it came from than many of us have today.
Furthermore, as I delved further into its history, I gained a greater understanding that food was behind many social and political reforms10, and was a contributing factor if not the whole drive and power behind the makings of the British Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries.14
Our current food environments and its nutritional consequences is a growing concern. The shaping of those food environments through history is a subject I feel deserves closer attention and a series of blog-posts.
I shall begin by going back to the land of my ‘mother country’.15
This is an introductory post for my theme: Food History in Australia.
Tracing the diets of my ancestors, prequels to the food history I have lived through.
# 1: Introduction: “eat what your great-great-great-grandparents ate …”
# 2: British food history leading up to the 18th century.
# 3: The relevance of food in the rise of the British Empire.
# 4: To Australia: The Hungry Years. 1777 – 1800.
# 5: Australian Food History: Greener Pastures. 1800 to 1850.
# 6: Australian Food History: The Gold Rush Years. 1850 to 1900.
# 7: Australian Food History: Federation and WW1. 1900 to 1920.
# 8: Australian Food History: Nutritionism begins. 1920 to 1950 # 9: Living through History: 1950s to 1970s # 10: Living through history: 1980s to 2000s
Disclaimer: Nothing in this article or on this website should be taken as medical or dietary advice. Anyone reading any information provided within should seek advice from their own medical practitioner for any issue, disease, illness or health-related problem they may have. Always seek your own advice from a medical practitioner or dietitian before changing your own diet.
1. Ravenet, Juan. Convicts in New Holland. Lithograph 01 January 1793.
Felipe Bauza, cartographer – drawings made on the Spanish Scientific Expedition to Australia and the Pacific in the ships Descubierta and Atrevida under the command of Alessandro Malaspina, 1789-94. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. Public Domain. Out of copyright: Artist died before 1955.
2. Pollan, Michael. In Defence of Food. 2008. Penguin Press. London.